Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

THUNDER ON THE HILL

Ann Blyth and Claudette Colbert
THUNDER ON THE HILL (1951). Director: Douglas Sirk.

In Norfolk county, England, Sister Mary (Claudette Colbert) works at a convent hospital under the firm but loving Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper). During a flood which forces the whole town to seek shelter in the convent on higher ground, along comes a strange group of people: Valerie Carns (Ann Blyth) has been convicted of murdering her invalid brother, and she is accompanied by Sgt, Melling (Gavin Muir) and a female assistant known only as Pierce (Norma Varden), who are taking her to be executed. However, Sister Mary becomes convinced that Valerie is innocent, and she risks the wrath of the Mother Superior by not only playing detective, but by bringing Valerie together with the man she loves, Sidney Kingham (Philip Friend), who may not be convinced of her innocence.

Claudette Colbert and Philip Friend
Thunder on the Hill is an absorbing and well-acted picture, with an interesting interplay between Colbert (playing possibly the most sophisticated nun in the history of cinema) and a sympathetic Blyth, proving that Veda in Mildred Pierce was not just a fluke. Gladys Cooper gives her usual authoritative and highly adept performance as the Mother Superior, and there is also nice work from Connie Gilchrist as another nun; Phyllis Stanley as a rather bitter nurse (almost on the verge of overplaying at times); Michael Pate [Hong Kong Confidential] as the slow-witted Willie; and Robert Douglas [This Side of the Law] and Anne Crawford as the convent doctor and his wife, among others.

Verdict: Unusual mystery with a very interesting cast. ***. 

DOLL FACE

Perry Como and Vivian Blaine
DOLL FACE (1945). Director: Lewis Seiler.

"Doll Face" Carroll (Vivian Blaine) is a top burlesque performer who tries to go legit, but when one producer, Flo Hartman (Reed Hadley), finds out who she really is he refuses to hire her. Doll Face's manager and boyfriend, Mike (Dennis O'Keefe), comes up with the dubious notion of showing that she has "class" by hiring a ghostwriter, Fred (Stephen Dunne), to pen her memoirs -- as a burlesque queen! As Fred falls for Doll Face, and singer Nicky Ricci (Perry Como) tries to get dancer "Frankie" (Martha Stewart) to warm up to him, Mike decides to turn Doll Face's memoir into a Broadway show. Can Doll Face finally go legit? And will she wind up with Mike or Frank?

Stephen Dunne and Carmen Miranda
This was adapted from a play by Gypsy Rose Lee but Doll Face should certainly not be confused with Gypsy! The script for this is no world-beater, although most of the performers are game. Vivian Blaine had her most famous role in Guys and Dolls, but in this I found her lacking in distinction. O'Keefe is as buoyant as ever, and poor Carmen Miranda is given no romance and only one catchy number, "Chico from Puerto Rico." The songs by McHugh and Adamson [Four Jills in a Jeep] are pleasant, however, with "Here Comes Heaven Again" arguably being the best. Reed Hadley is fine as the producer, who ultimately opts to work with Doll Face, and Perry Como is mildly appealing as Nicky. Handsome Stephen Dunne is billed in this as "Michael" Dunne, the name he used in his earliest appearances. He later starred as "Steve" Dunne on The Brothers Brannagan for TV.

Verdict: Acceptable but rather minor musical. **1/2. 

PRETTY BOY FLOYD

John Ericson
PRETTY BOY FLOYD (1960). Director: Herbert J. Leder.

Charles Arthur Floyd (John Ericson) gets some bad breaks due to the poverty of the period, and winds up in jail. Now an ex-con, he has difficulty finding a job. He decides he might as well rob banks, and is always sure of giving some of his booty to his fellow Okies in need. But when he shoots a cop in cold blood, and is also suspected of being one of the hit men in a massacre in Kansas City in which both agents and crooks are murdered, the G-Men make him Public Enemy Number One. You can be certain that it won't end well for "Pretty Boy" Floyd.

Joan Harvey and John Ericson
Pretty Boy Floyd should have been a star-making part for John Ericson, who had already been seen to great advantage in such films as Rhapsody, where he was Elizabeth Taylor's leading man. Although Ericson gives an excellent performance in this, the movie is shoddy and cheap jack, poorly directed by Leder. Leder at least manages to get good performances across the board, with an unrecognizably young Barry Newman [Fatal Vision] scoring as Floyd's associate-in-crime, the fictional Al Riccardo. Joan Harvey is also fine as Lily, a married woman who becomes Floyd's gal pal, and Carl York makes an impression as Floyd's old buddy, Curly. Jason Evers (billed as Herb) plays a sheriff, Peter Falk is another gangster, and Al Lewis, "Ol' Grandpa" from The Munsters himself, certainly make his mark as a hoodlum who winds up begging for his life in front of fellow mobsters when he really screws up. Fabian played Floyd ten years later in A Bullet for Pretty Boy, which wasn't any better than this.

Verdict: Good lead performance in a disappointing gangster flick. **. 

HAYWIRE

HAYWIRE. Brooke Hayward. Originally published in 1977; updated 2011. Random House.

Brooke Hayward is the daughter of actress Margaret Sullavan and agent-turned-producer Leland Hayward. This memoir looks not so much at those two individuals, but at how their interactions affected Ms. Hayward and her brother and sister. Sullavan and the narcissistic Hayward divorced after the latter had an affair while she was out of town working oversea for months, and it left lasting scars, especially on Sullavan, who felt abandoned by her children when they went to live with their father. Both of the parents remarried.

Instead of a probing look at the parents, two interesting individuals, whatever their flaws, with seriously important careers, we mostly get the ruminations of their daughter, which at times become quite tedious in this lengthy if occasionally absorbing memoir, although, to be fair, she does a fair job of analyzing them at times. Although the author tries very hard to portray her family as some kind of dynasty, and their story as an epic tragedy, this doesn't quite work, and she seems oblivious to the fact that marital problems, suicides, mental health issues etc. also afflict people in tenements. In fact, entitlement screams at you from every page. Oddly, Ms. Hayward barely goes into her marriages to Dennis Hopper or Peter Duchin (son of Eddy Duchin), although that might have been of some interest to the reader. Despite the rave reviews (Ms. Hayward had connections, after all), I imagine many readers got tired of slogging through the book in search of juicy material. Another problem is that the book is poorly organized, jumping around in time when a linear narrative would have worked much better.

Ms. Hayward also ignores her career, although there wasn't much to it. Although she was rather amateurish appearing opposite Jerry Orbach in the film Mad Dog Coll, she displayed real ability in the Twilight Zone episode "The Masks." She only amassed 12 credits, however. She also had a brief modeling career although her looks were average.

If you actually want to read a biography of the great Margaret Sullavan, I recommend Margaret Sullavan, Child by Fate by Lawrence J. Quirk.

Verdict: Well-written but seriously flawed memoir. **1/2. 

STUPID RECENT MOVIE: THE FAVOURITE

Emma Stone as Abigail Hill
THE FAVOURITE (2018). Director: Yorgos Lanthimos.

Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) supposedly rules England but most of her decisions of state are made by her confidante and lover, Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Into this household comes Sarah's cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone of La La Land), who once was a lady herself, but thanks to her now-dead alcoholic father, has become a mere servant subject to Sarah's patronizing attitude. But Abigail has her own ambitions, and manages to draw the attention and favor of the queen, eventually replacing Rachel in Anne's bed. But Rachel is not about to take that, uh, lying down, and Abigail may have to take drastic steps to remain "The Favourite."

Olivia Coleman as the queen 
The Favourite takes actual historical characters, uses some of the bare facts of their inter-relationships, then pretty much invents everything else -- The Favourite is the very epitome of "dramatic license." Thrown out of the queen's favor, Sarah did intimate that there might have been a sexual relationship between Anne and Abigail, and presented a very negative portrait of  the queen in her memoirs. However, later biographers, who were much more objective, say that Anne was not the dunderhead she was portrayed as in both the memoirs and this movie. While there is no doubt that history has often been subjected to LGBT erasure, there is no real substantiation that a lesbian love triangle existed in the palace in the first place (Anne's husband, Prince George, is never even mentioned let alone depicted, not that would necessarily have meant that she was strictly heterosexual.) But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill
Not that The Favourite necessarily has a good story. Everything is presented in very contemporary terms, vulgarized and dumbed-down, as if the film were a campy black comedy. The acting is professional but not especially memorable (even if Colman managed to net a Best Actress Oscar). The movie seems directed at a young, immature audience who wants their slice of history with lots of sex and a liberal sprinkling of "f" and "c--t" words. Because of the lesbian interplay, I'm also afraid some viewers will see this as some sort of progressive LGBT movie when it is anything but. While I'm not saying the film is homophobic as such, it's hard not to notice that the gay or bisexual ladies in it are pretty much presented as grotesque and not at all sympathetic. The director did not want to really deal with the sexuality of the characters or their attitude towards same, but then the characters are fairly one-dimensional to begin with. (Let me make it clear that I completely disassociate myself from viewers who hated the film simply because it presented LGBT characters.)

Queen Anne's court
Incredibly, The Favourite garnered Oscars and nominations and dozens and dozens of awards (GLAAD even nominated it as "Best Picture," although it didn't win.) What on earth has happened to people's critical faculties these days? The only award the film really deserved was for the cinematography by Robbie Ryan. As with the equally over-rated Moonlight or Call Me By Your Name this is an example of the Academy and Hollywood in general being overly impressed with a film because it is seen as progressive when it really isn't. The historical inaccuracies alone are enough to make this a sham of a production, and I can only imagine that poor Queen Anne, gay or not, is spinning in her grave.

Verdict: This is hardly history -- or herstory. **. 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

CARNAL KNOWLEDGE

Art Garfunkel and Candice Bergen
CARNAL KNOWLEDGE  (1971). Director: Mike Nichols. Screenplay by Jules Feiffer.

In college post-WW2, two friends, Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel), contemplate getting laid and what type of woman they'd like to wind up with. Sandy begins dating Susan (Candice Bergen), but so does Jonathan, sleeping with Susan behind his friend's back.

Ann-Margret and Jack Nicholson
Years go by. Although married, Sandy wants more excitement in the bedroom and hooks up with the more aggressive Cindy (Cynthia O'Neal). while Jonathan shacks up with Bobbie (Ann-Margret of State Fair), who -- a la Rosalind Russell in Picnic -- is almost desperate to get married. Things don't go smoothly with either relationship, but then Jonathan is a complete chauvinistic pig -- his truly disgusting nature becomes even more apparent by the end -- and Sandy, although apparently more "sensitive," isn't much better.

Best friends? Garfunkle and Nicholson
Carnal Knowledge was a popular and admired film in its day, probably due to its frankness, but it doesn't hold up well. It is an absorbing picture nevertheless because of the acting and because there's some suspense over what will happen to the characters. Bergen, Ann-Margret, and Garfunkel (so good you wished he did much more acting) are all excellent, and while Nicholson was already falling into that certain stock "Jack Nicholson" mode, his performance is also good. O'Neal and Rita Moreno are quite effective in smaller roles.

Triangle: Bergen, Garfunkel, with Nicholson in background
But one is left with the sensation that this screenplay was an old and unsatisfactory stage play dusted off by Jules Feiffer and turned into a movie by a compliant Mike Nichols working in a Woody Allen mode. The movie, deliberately paced and with long takes, is expertly shot by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno [Haunted Summer]. Some scenes, such as when Jonathan shows Sandy and his new girlfriend slides of all of the women he's screwed (Susan gets in there by "mistake"), are quite contrived. Mike Nichols also directed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Verdict: Two pigs in a poke. **1/2.

BERNARDINE

Pat Boone and Dick Sargent
BERNARDINE (1957). Director: Henry Levin.

Some high school pals in a club imagine the perfect woman and for unaccountable reasons call her "Bernardine." One afternoon Sanford Wilson (Dick Sargent) meets a beautiful young lady named Jean (Terry Moore of Mighty Joe Young), and he is instantly smitten -- she is his Bernardine. The other guys in the club also think Jean is special, but her relationship with Sanford hits the rocks when she meets Langley (James Drury), the handsome older brother of Sanford's friend, Beau (Pat Boone). With a little help from his friends, Sanford tries to win the hand of fair lady.

Terry Moore and Dick Sargent
Although Pat Boone and Terry Moore are top-billed in Bernardine, the main character and the one who gets the most running time, is Dick Sargent's Sanford. Pat Boone, playing a very unlikable person (although most of the boys in the film are unlikable) does have some screen time and gets to warble three numbers, the okay title tune, the highly sexist "Technique," and the more memorable "Love Letters in the Sand," which I believe was a big hit for Boone, who kind of imitates Der Bingle a bit. Terry Moore actually has very little to do in the film considering she is the leading lady. Bernardine asks us to accept Sargent, Boone, Ronnie Burns, and others as high school students when they have clearly left their teenage years far behind them. This makes their behavior at times seem borderline grotesque. They are particularly obnoxious to a nerd named Kinswood (Hooper Dunbar), although eventually he's somewhat accepted by the others.

Janet Gaynor
Natalie Schafer plays Boone's mother in a couple of brief scenes, but the stand-out in this is Janet Gaynor [Sunrise], who plays Sargent's mom and is given a couple of strong moments. "It's crazy, it's wild, it's improbable -- but don't tell me you passed!" she says to Sanford, who is not a great student. Sargent has some good moments, too, but again he's too old, his character isn't very appealing, and the more serious moments when he's dealing with heartbreak are almost worse than the comedy sequences. Although Sargent subsequently appeared with Boone in Mardi Gras, his film career never really developed and he mostly did television. Walter Abel and Dean Jagger are also in the film. This was Pat Boone's first movie and Janet Gaynor's last; she had two television credits after that.

Verdict: In spite of "Love Letters in the Sand," this is so bad it's depressing. *1/2. 

INDECENT / VANITY FAIR

Myrna Loy as Becky Sharp
INDECENT (aka Vanity Fair/1932). Director: Chester M. Franklin.

"I do hope I'm going to give satisfaction." -- Becky.

Becky Sharp (Myrna Loy), who has beauty and brains but no money, gets a taste of the good life when she is taken in by her wealthy friend, Amelia (Barbara Kent). Amelia's brother Joseph (Billy Bevan) has a yen for Becky, but while she almost tricks him into marriage, he manages to get out of the trap. Becoming a governess for Sir Pitt Crawley (Lionel Belmore), Becky is caught between the lustful advances of Sir Pitt and the more refined passes of Crawley's son, Rawdon (Conway Tearle), whom she marries. But things don't go smoothly for the couple after Rawdon is disinherited by his jealous father. And things get worse after that ...

Billy Bevan and Myrna Loy
Indecent is a credible, updated version of Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" which revises things due to the change in locale and time period -- there are no references to Napoleon or Waterloo in this version -- but remains fairly faithful to the basic events and spirit of the story. Although not as bombastic as Miriam Hopkins in the later Becky Sharp, Loy gives a very good performance in this, and she has a host of talented if lesser-known co-stars. There is some inventive camera work in the film, which is not that slow-moving, and the finale, with Loy facing her older self in the mirror, is quite grim.

Verdict: Entertaining pre-code drama. ***.

WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN?

Dina Merrill and Larry Blyden
WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? NBC Sunday Showcase 1959. Director: Delbert Mann.

"You're intelligent but not smart." -- Sammy to Al.

"Just the opposite of you." -- Al to Sammy.

Sammy Glick (Larry Blyden) is a copy boy for a major NYC newspaper where Al Manheim (John Forsythe) is a columnist. Sammy is going places, and at first he seems admirably full of ambition and initiative. Glick manages to get his own column, then takes a screenplay written by Julian Blumberg (Milton Selzer of Blood and Lace) and sells it to Hollywood. Sammy takes both Al and Julian to LA with him, but somehow Julian's name is left off the credits for the movie. Al realizes that Sammy has a dark side, that he treats people like supernumeraries even though they are the ones with the talent. Al watches helplessly as novelist Kit Sargent (Barbara Rush), who is now writing screenplays for Sammy, falls in love with him even though he wants her for himself. But there are surprises in store for all of these characters ...

Barbara Rush and John Forsythe
What Makes Sammy Run?  is a prime example of the "golden age" of television, where there were meaty scripts and fine actors doing exemplary work, and everyone is at their best in this. Blyden, an excellent performer who died much too early at 49, is superb as Sammy, and I don't think I've ever seen John Forsythe, Dynasty be damned, to better advantage. Barbara Rush is also excellent, as is Dina Merrill [Butterfield 8] as Laurette, the amoral daughter of studio boss H. L. Harrington (an equally good Sidney Blackmer); in fact, I don't think I've ever seen Merrill better. David Opatoshu also scores as production chief Sidney Fineman, who is pushed out in favor of Sammy. Monique van Vooren [Tarzan and the She- Devil] credibly plays a movie star who loses her appeal for Sammy once her movies start slipping at the box office. And there are a host of good character actors in supporting parts as well.

Forstyhe, Monique van Vooren, Blyden, Merrill
What Makes Sammy Run? may have lost some of its edge to certain viewers because the basic themes and characters have been used and re-used many times over the years. I can't count all the times I've seen shows about bitter, self-hating associates complaining about an essential heel (in and out of show business), and backstabbing producers and others are commonplace today both on and off the screen. This was based on a novel by Budd Schulberg, who turned it into a musical (starring Steve Lawrence) co-written by Schulberg's brother, Stuart. (This TV version does not include the songs.) Neither the novel nor the musical were ever turned into a movie, mostly because people feared it would be considered anti-Semitic because Sammy was Jewish. Back in the day Schulberg argued that most of the characters, some of whom were decent guys like Al Manheim, were also Jewish; it was a true cross-section. I have never read the novel, so I don't know if Schulberg explained part of Sammy's hunger not just on his poor tenement upbringing but as a reaction to blatant anti-Semitism -- this is not delved into at all in the TV version.

The TV production makes one major change in that it offers Sammy redemption. In the original story, Sammy is all for pushing Fineman out so that he can take his place, but in the TV show he sticks up for Fineman, tells Harrington that he, Sammy, not only owes Fineman a lot but that Fineman is the best man for the job. This doesn't help Fineman but at least Sammy makes a sincere effort. One could argue that this is out of character for Sammy.

Verdict: A classic in every sense of the word. ***1/2. 

GOOD NEWER MOVIE: LA LA LAND

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone 
LA LA LAND (2019). Written and directed by Damien Chazelle.

Mia (Emma Stone of The Amazing Spider-Man) is an aspiring actress going on auditions and working as a barista in L.A. She encounters jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling of All Good Things), who proves quite obnoxious at first. Gradually the two warm up to one another and begin a relationship. But both have ambitions that may interfere with the permanency of their union. And their idea of success may not be the same. Periodically they and others break into song.

Emma Stone
First let me make it clear that La La Land is not on the list of really superb musicals a la Singin' in the Rain. When Stone and Gosling dance you won't in any sense of the word be reminded of Fred and Ginger or Gene Kelly, and they both have mediocre voices. But if you take it on its own terms La La Land has its rewards. The two leads, neither of whom is conventionally attractive, give very good performances and the songs they warble are at least pleasant.

Stone and Gosling 
Linus Sandgren's cinematography is first-class, and there's an interesting opening production number on the freeway. La La Land gets high marks for being visually arresting. But the chief thing I liked about the movie is its coda, a long sequence in which Emma encounters Sebastian years later -- and as people will do -- imagines what her life would have been like had she married him instead of her husband. I think it is this finale that resonates with most viewers and has perhaps led many people to over-rate the movie. Still, it's romantic, well-acted, and good to look at. Damien Chazelle also directed Whiplash. Ryan Gosling is not to be confused with Ryan Reynolds [Green Lantern] even though they look alike.

Verdict: Not a classic but entertaining enough. ***.